State v. Ditenhafer

Decision Date12 March 2021
Docket NumberNo. 126A18-2,126A18-2
Citation855 S.E.2d 162,376 N.C. 846
Parties STATE of North Carolina v. Mardi Jean DITENHAFER
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Sherri Horner Lawrence, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellee.

Jarvis John Edgerton, IV, for defendant-appellant.

ERVIN, Justice.

¶ 1 The issue before us in this case involves the sufficiency of the evidence to support defendant Mardi Jean Ditenhafer's conviction for felonious obstruction of justice based upon her actions in allegedly interfering with the ability of law enforcement officers and social workers to have access to her daughter, who had been sexually abused by defendant's husband. After careful consideration of defendant's challenge to the Court of Appeals’ decision, we hold that the record contains sufficient evidence that defendant acted with deceit and intent to defraud to support her conviction for felonious obstruction of justice and affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.

I. Factual Background
A. Substantive Facts

¶ 2 Defendant is the mother of Jane and the wife of William Ditenhafer, who is Jane's adopted father.1 After reaching middle school, Jane developed mental health and self-esteem-related problems and began to engage in self-harming-related activities. According to Jane, defendant would become angry about her self-harming activities, claiming that she was acting as she was in order to get "attention" and to "fit in" and that Jane needed to stop what she was doing. Jane claimed to be afraid of Mr. Ditenhafer because of his anger, his tendency to yell at her, and the spankings that he would administer for the purpose of disciplining her when she got in trouble. Upon discovering that Jane had sent suggestive photos of herself to a middle school boy, defendant and Mr. Ditenhafer became very angry with Jane and prohibited her from using electronic devices. Around the same time, Mr. Ditenhafer, with defendant's knowledge, began giving Jane full-body massages to "help [her] self-esteem."

¶ 3 After giving Jane a massage in 2013, Mr. Ditenhafer told Jane to come into the living room. Once she had complied with that instruction, Mr. Ditenhafer informed Jane that he had discovered that she had sent additional suggestive photographs to the boy who had received the earlier images. According to Jane, Mr. Ditenhafer claimed to have been "turned on" by these photos and told Jane that they "could either show [defendant] these photos" or she could "help him with his ... boner." At that point, Jane started crying because, "if [defendant] saw these [images] again, she would call the police and I would get in trouble and I would get sent to jail," and did as Mr. Ditenhafer had instructed her to do.

¶ 4 Subsequently, Mr. Ditenhafer began to pressure Jane to engage in sexual acts with him on a regular basis. Over time, the abuse that Mr. Ditenhafer inflicted upon Jane became more serious, with such abusive episodes occurring "at least two times a week" when defendant was not in the home and progressing to the point that Mr. Ditenhafer had Jane engage in oral and vaginal sex acts with him. Jane claimed that Mr. Ditenhafer told her not to tell anyone about the abuse or he would make her sound like a "crazy lying teenager." Jane refrained from telling defendant about the abuse that she was suffering at the hands of her adoptive father because she "didn't think [defendant] would believe [her] and [defendant] would get angry at [her] for making up a lie."

¶ 5 In the spring of 2013, when Jane was in the ninth grade, she visited an aunt, who was the sister of her biological father, in Arizona. During that visit, Jane informed her aunt that Mr. Ditenhafer had been sexually abusing her. At that point, Jane and her aunt called defendant for the purpose of telling defendant about the abuse that Jane had experienced. Defendant reacted to the information that Jane and her aunt had provided by becoming angry with Jane.

¶ 6 The aunt reported Jane's accusations against Mr. Ditenhafer to law enforcement officers in Arizona. The Arizona officers, in turn, contacted Detective Stan Doremus of the Wake County Sheriff's Office, who initiated an investigation into Jane's allegations. Jane testified that, upon her return to North Carolina, defendant picked her up from the airport and told her that defendant did not believe Jane's accusations; that Jane "needed to tell the truth and recant and not — and not lie anymore because it was going to tear apart the family and it was just going to end horribly"; and "that [Jane] didn't need to do this."

¶ 7 After learning of Jane's accusations against Mr. Ditenhafer, Susan Dekarske, a social worker employed by the Child Protective Services Department of Wake County Human Services, interviewed defendant and Mr. Ditenhafer, both of whom denied Jane's accusations. Even so, Mr. Ditenhafer agreed to move out of the family home and to refrain from communicating with Jane during the pendency of the investigation.

¶ 8 On 11 April 2013 Jane and defendant met with Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske at the family home. After Ms. Dekarske asked to speak with her privately, Jane told Ms. Dekarske about several instances of sexual abuse that she had suffered at the hands of Mr. Ditenhafer, the fact that defendant urged Jane to recant her accusations against her adoptive father, and the fact that defendant had blamed Jane for destroying the family given that Mr. Ditenhafer "would get 15 years in prison, that [defendant] would also lose her job and that [John] would lose his dad, [and] they will lose the house." On 22 May 2013, Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske went to Jane's school for the purpose of speaking with her privately in light of their understanding that defendant had been pressuring Jane to deny the truthfulness of her claims against Mr. Ditenhafer.

¶ 9 On 21 June 2013, Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske again met with defendant and Jane at the family home. During the course of this meeting, defendant "had her hand on [Jane]’s thigh virtually the whole time" and "was answering the questions for [Jane]." When Detective Doremus asked defendant whether she thought that Jane's accusations against Mr. Ditenhafer were true, defendant, who appeared to be shocked, responded by stating that "there is some truth to everything that [Jane] says but not all of it is true." In addition, defendant told Ms. Dekarske that she and Jane had been working to improve their ability to communicate with each other and that, while defendant believed a portion of what Jane had been saying, she "did not believe it was" Mr. Ditenhafer who had abused Jane. After Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske asked if they could speak with Jane privately, defendant responded that she was not comfortable with allowing Jane to be alone with Detective Doremus and declined to allow this request.

¶ 10 Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske met with Jane in private again on 11 July 2013. Detective Doremus recalled that, as soon as she entered the meeting room, Jane "became upset and said that the only reason that [defendant] let her talk with us alone is because [Jane was] supposed to recant" and that, upon making this statement, Jane "started to cry, [and] said she was not going to recant to us because she was telling the truth." As the meeting progressed, defendant sent text messages to Jane asking how the meeting was going, interrupted the meeting by entering the room in which the interview was taking place, and appeared angry when Detective Doremus informed her that Jane had not recanted her accusations against her adoptive father. After Detective Doremus showed defendant a stack of sexually explicit e-mails that Mr. Ditenhafer had sent to Jane, defendant "looked at one page [of the e-mails], ... flipped over to another page, and then left" with Jane in a "[h]urried, angry, rushed" manner.

¶ 11 As the investigation continued, defendant remained angry with Jane and continued to pressure her to recant. At one point, defendant threatened to take Jane to a psychiatric hospital because Jane was "crazy." When asked about the nature of the comments that defendant had made to her during this period of time, Jane testified that

[defendant] would tell me I was manipulative and crazy and how I needed to tell the truth because I was tearing apart her family and destroying her family and that [Mr. Ditenhafer] was going to go to jail because of my lies and [my younger brother] was going to turn into a drug addict and drop out of high school and that I was, like, ruining, like, our family. And this one time she also called me a manipulative bitch.

In addition, defendant forbade Jane from visiting or talking with her Arizona relatives until she told them that she had falsely accused Mr. Ditenhafer of sexually abusing her. Defendant also informed Jane that a family trip to Disneyland was "not going to happen because we're going to lose our money and we're going to lose our stuff and the animals" and that, on the other hand, if Jane recanted her allegations against Mr. Ditenhafer, the family could still go to Disneyland. Finally, defendant told Jane that defendant might have breast cancer and that Jane needed to stop lying about the way in which her adoptive father had treated her because those lies were causing defendant to experience stress.

¶ 12 The conduct in which defendant engaged and Jane's fear that she would lose her relationship with her younger brother finally caused Jane to recant her accusations against Mr. Ditenhafer in early August 2013. On 5 August 2013, as Ms. Dekarske was preparing to leave after meeting with Jane and defendant at the family home, Jane ran outside and told Ms. Dekarske that she needed to tell her something. Then, in a manner that Ms. Dekarske described as "robotic" and "rehearsed," Jane stated, "I just want to let you know I am recanting my story and I'm making it all up." As Ms. Dekarske looked back towards the house, she saw defendant...

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